21 January 2017 7 Comments
For the longest time, I never read reviews. I was adamant that one stranger’s opinion on a book would never be helpful; I’d need to read it and make up my own mind, thank you very much. It goes without saying that I’ve read a lot of mediocre books.
Ironically, it was reading the love-it-or-hate-it reviews of The Bell Jar, having written a very average three-star review of it myself, that lead me to read reviews before reading a book.
A great book cover or blurb has always caught my attention, but what makes me want to pick up a book and start reading is its negative reviews. Does that seem counter-intuitive? The thing is, knowing how much someone loved a book is nice, but it’s rarely informative. And don’t even get me started on keyboard smash and gif-filled reviews.
This might be related to the fact that I get far, far more pleasure from writing about books I dislike than from writing about books I enjoy. The fact that I spent hours of my time reading a book that didn’t feel worthwhile makes writing about why a satisfying and cathartic experience. Negative reviews are motivated by the need to critique rather than simply praise, and that substantive content is why I find them more useful.
I generally find positive reviews hard to wade through, with too much time spent explaining the premise—I won’t need that if you can only convince me to read the book! Their enthusiasm can feel quite forced or seem like posturing, rather than a genuine appreciation for the material. Those kinds of unreflective remarks are not reviews—they’re histrionics.
So instead I find myself scrolling right past the epic and occasionally nonsensical praise. I filter for the one- and two-star reviews, and I bask in the bashing, the whining and the disappointment. When someone dislikes a book they don’t often spend paragraphs rehashing the plot (unless it’s to point out the holes); it’s straight to the things that bothered them.
And here’s the point—the reason I can trawl through a dozen negative reviews and still want to read the book by the end of it—what other people dislike, I might love! If someone moans about there not being enough description—great! I hate too much description. If a reviewer complains because there’s too much dialogue—fantastic! I thrive on dialogue. If a reader gripes over hating the characters for not being nice enough—brilliant! I adore morally grey characters.
Of course, negative reviews aren’t all wonderful. I can just as easily find one I agree with, which lists criticisms that are deal breakers for me. But such reviews are just as, if not more, appreciated—they save me from wasting my precious book-reading time on something I’d hate.
Ultimately I’m very grateful to anyone who, instead of simply tossing aside the books they don’t like, actually takes the time to review them. They could very well be helping me find the next book I love.